Finding Faith: What I Learned from My Dog

By Christine Hartjes, June 2018
Buddy, Dog

Sometimes he woke me with a gentle nudge, his brown eyes staring intently into my own. Sometimes he flopped on the bed, salmon-style, limbs all askew, adjusting himself into the mattress and startling me from sleep. Sometimes it was a lick on the face or on the arm, or a slight nuzzle of whatever appendage of mine happened to be hanging precariously off the bed. Regardless, it was always a gentle awakening, a sweet awakening, each morning, looking into my dog’s doting eyes.

You know what I loved most about him, what we all love the most about our four-legged companions? Their consistency. Despite all the turmoil of daily living: the deaths and the divorces, the late bills and the rainy Saturdays, burned pancakes and missed phone calls, dogs can be depended upon for constancy in a way that human beings cannot.

Brown eyes gazing lovingly back each morning. A cacophony of barking and strange throat humming to welcome us at the door. Frequent face-licking and tail-wagging, over and over, the windshield wipers for all of life’s storms.

You know what sound I could depend upon the most for the duration of my life? Not the ticking of the clock. Not the music of my favorite band. Not even the hum of the television.

The sound that carried me through the most troubling times of my life was the thud of a tennis ball. Over and over. At my feet. On the bed beside me. On the couch while I watched late-night television. In the yard, whether the sun was rising or setting: there was the sound of that ball, dropping, stopping time for a moment. Hundreds of times a day, he brought that ball, and he dropped it. Expectantly. Eagerly. Happily.

That ball said. See me? I am here. I am waiting for you.

Patiently.

No human being has ever believed in me to do the right thing quite as much as my dog did: no matter how many times I was too busy, how many times I rolled over and went back to sleep or left the ball sit untouched on the worn couch beside me, he still picked that ball up and dropped it yet again.

What kind of world would we live in if we had that kind of endless devotion and belief in each other? Humans are different, you see. If my daughter asks me to go for a bike ride and I say “in a minute” but return to my smartphone instead, she won’t keep asking. Sure, maybe she will try one or two more times to convince me, but she’s not going to keep asking, keep believing, no matter what.

And I don’t blame her. We humans, we are too afraid of the hurt that comes from frequent rejection. We give up. We stop asking to play catch. We stop bringing that ball back.

We forget about how deeply important that belief in each other's goodness is, how much it can push a person to defy the odds, to be better, to become worthy and deserving of that kind of faith.

But dogs, well dogs just believe so deeply in our goodness, that we become better people as a result. We stand taller and strive to be what they see in us.

Buddy, our dog, he had that kind of faith in each member of our family, letting whatever new life crisis we were experiencing run its course. On the other side of that argument over who should make dinner, or who should sweep the floor, he knew that one of us would eventually pick up that saliva-drenched ball once again, and toss it so he could chase it.

About a month ago though, he vomited on the kitchen floor.

A fluke we thought. Nothing serious.

His tail was still wagging.

His eyes were still shining.

The ball was still dropping.

He kept throwing up his morning kibble, but the vet said not to be concerned: an ulcer, an infection, a handful of pills. The vet said he would be okay.

But he wasn’t.

The cancer was in his stomach, his chest cavity, his kidneys and his spleen. Inoperable, the vet said.

On the day we put him down, while we waited for the veterinarian to administer the injection, our dog’s breathing was slow and raspy. My husband and I held his head in our laps and pushed our faces close against his, reminding him what a good dog he was, his furry face a wet mess of our tears.

My husband placed the ball on the ground in front of his muzzle, just in case he wanted it.

He didn’t lift his ears or raise his head.

He didn’t pick the ball up or drop it at our feet, with a gentle thud.

And the silence he left behind, well…

It is just too loud.

Christine Hartjes is a teacher, writer and dog-lover from Appleton, Wisconsin. 

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